A sought-after Virginia neighborhood that once housed a church is now filled with affordable housing.
For nearly 60 years, a location that now occupies apartments in Alexandria, Virginia, housed the Resurrection Episcopal Church.
“I still have tears in my eyes about this, but I think for all of us, certainly, I felt it was a journey of faith,” Betsy Faga said.
A decade ago, church leaders like Faga noticed a drop in membership, along with a large empty building and a growing need for the community.
“We’ve had a pantry for a number of years now, and so at least during the food distribution, before we made certain decisions, you know, the people working there were asking, ‘What do you need? ?’” Faga mentioned. “And it was always, you know, food and shelter.”
So they worked with a developer to lease the land, demolish the church, and build the 113-apartment building, along with a new eco-friendly church.
“Our developer was kind enough to agree to prepay the entire ground lease, and that’s the money we used to build the church,” Faga said.
They also got hundreds of new neighbors in the process.
For many churches, it’s not just about loving your neighbor, but about being good stewards of land that typically sits unused for decades.
“About 48,000 to 180,000 rental units could potentially be built on the land in these five jurisdictions in the DMV region alone,” said David Bowers, senior faith-based development initiative advisor at Enterprise Community Partners.
According to Bowers, that, combined with declining membership nationwide, makes churches the perfect solution to a growing housing problem.
“When you have so many needs and you have a community sitting on a resource, it could be activated to meet that need,” Bowers said. “Why don’t we work with them to try to help activate this earth?”
In Atlanta, Georgia, Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church pastor William Flippen Sr. recognized the possibilities years ago, with a dream of using more than 50 acres of unused church property to build affordable housing for seniors. Now they are looking at a waiting list of over 7,000 people.
A recent Federal Reserve report called Atlanta “unaffordable” based on median income.
“Housing rates are going up,” said Pastor Chianti Harris, executive director of The Grove CDC. “Taxes are going up. Incomes aren’t. Investors have come in and pretty much taken over a lot of the housing from the person who could almost afford housing.”
In March, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and Wells Fargo announced an initiative giving $1.3 million to 15 faith-based organizations to build affordable housing.
The Grove team will help these churches.
“A lot of the tongue can make the eyes cross,” Harris said. “It’s like reading the King James Version at midnight.”
Bowers says that’s also where his team comes in to help churches navigate attorneys, funding and zoning laws.
“Sometimes zoning can restrict what can be done where a place of worship is,” Bowers said. “And so the ability to build residences or the amount of residences that can be built – sometimes that’s a barrier.”
There’s also reluctance from neighbors, which Tom Luehrs of the St. Francis Center in Denver experienced.
“People were referring to the people who were going to live there in a pretty insulting way, describing people as creepy people,” Luehrs said.
The group was looking to turn an old church into dormitory-style living for homeless people, but it took a bit of convincing.
“We have a good neighbor agreement in place, which basically means that we as owners of this property intend to be good neighbors to everyone in the area,” said Luehrs.
Chris Doran, professor of theology and sustainability at Pepperdine, says that for churches that can pull it all off, there can be an ecological upside.
“When you’re doing renovation efforts and you can make things more energy efficient, you can do water treatment systems or water storage systems,” Doran said. “We can think of redoing the electricity to have solar panels or geothermal energy.”
There are also the ethical advantages.
“One of the residents who moved into the building said, ‘This is the most dignified feeling I’ve had in years,'” Doran said.
“God doesn’t drop ramen noodles from the sky,” Harris said. “He gives us the opportunity, through what we do with the ministries, to be able to serve the people.”
The Resurrection Episcopal Church team agrees.
“All the passages we know from God’s Bible saying, ‘Love your neighbour,’ and our purpose is to help care for our neighbour,” Faga said.
It’s an unconventional take on one of the oldest commands.